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Horn v. Berryhill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

August 9, 2019

RHONDA HORN, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Rhonda Horn (“Plaintiff”) brings this action pursuant to Section 205(g) of the Social Security Act (“the Act”), seeking review of the decision of the Commissioner of Social Security (“the Commissioner”) denying her claim for a period of disability insurance benefits (“DIB”) and supplemental security income (“SSI”). See 42 U.S.C. §§ 405(g), 1383(c). Based on this court's review of the record and the briefs submitted by the parties, the court finds that the decision of the Commissioner is due to be affirmed.

         I. Proceedings Below

         Plaintiff filed her application for DIB on March 13, 2015 and SSI on March 24, 2015, alleging a disability onset date of February 28, 2015. (R. 146, 148). The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) denied the initial request for DIB and SSI on August 12, 2015. (R. 56, 70). Plaintiff thereafter requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) (R. 88), and ALJ Emilie Kraft held a hearing on June 28, 2017. (R. 28). In her decision dated September 19, 2017, the ALJ determined that Plaintiff was not under a disability within the meaning of Sections 216(i), 223(d), or 1614(a)(3)(A) of the Social Security Act. (R. 20). Because the Appeals Council denied Plaintiff's request for review on April 21, 2018, which was the final decision of the Commissioner (R. 1-3), the Commissioner's decision is now a proper subject for this court's appellate review.

         II. Statement of Facts

         Plaintiff, who was born on August 11, 1970, was 44-years-old when she filed her request for DIB/SSI, and 47 at the time of the ALJ's decision. (R. 20, 44). After completing the tenth grade, Plaintiff held four relevant jobs over a fifteen year period: “fast food manager training, ” forklift operator, warehouse worker, and hand packager. (R. 31, 38, 40). The ALJ found that Plaintiff suffers from several severe impairments: degenerative disc disease, rheumatoid arthritis, neuropathy, and fibromyalgia. (R. 13).

         The only issue on review in this case is whether the ALJ properly evaluated Plaintiff's complaints of pain. (Pl.'s Mem., Doc. # 10 at 4). Plaintiff first complained of pain in her extremities in late December 2014 at the Emergency Department of Shelby Baptist Medical Center. (R. 343). At that visit, Plaintiff reported a pain score of six on a ten-point scale. (R. 343). In the review of systems, the physician found that Plaintiff was positive for myalgias and arthralgias in her musculoskeletal system, but that Plaintiff maintained a normal range of motion. (R. 343-44). Over the next three years until her final visit in the medical record on April 29, 2017, Plaintiff sought frequent medical treatment for her back and extremity pain resulting from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. (See e.g., R. 322, 335, 421, 459, 475, 489). While at times Plaintiff described her pain as severe (R. 323, 330, 371, 392, 479, 512), during other visits, Plaintiff characterized the pain as mild or moderate. (R. 336, 410, 425, 432, 442, 475, 489). Despite a limited range of motion at one previous doctor visit (R. 371), numerous visits, including Plaintiff's most recent exam on record, demonstrate that Plaintiff has a normal range of motion in her musculoskeletal system. (R. 330, 336, 344, 512).

         During her hearing with the ALJ, Plaintiff reported that she experiences flare-ups that cause severe pain. (R. 32). This severe pain creates four “bad” days in a week and twenty-five “bad” days in a month, according to Plaintiff. (R. 32-33). Despite this pain, Plaintiff is able to do some light activities around the house, such as cleaning and cooking, in addition to going grocery shopping with her daughter. (R. 33). However, Plaintiff stated that she has to lie down four hours during the day to relieve her pain. (R. 34). Plaintiff also told the ALJ that her medications “help [her] some, ” which is consistent with Plaintiff's recent medical record where she explained that her fibromyalgia is “doing much better” and that she is “pleased with her current regimen.” (R. 35, 470, 475).

         III. ALJ Decision

         Disability under the Act is determined under a five-step test. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. First, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant is engaging in substantial gainful activity. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(i). “Substantial work activity” involves significant physical or mental activities, and “gainful work activity” is work that is done for pay or profit. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1572. If the ALJ finds that the claimant engages in substantial gainful activity, then the claimant cannot claim disability. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(b).

         Second, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant has a medically determinable impairment or a combination of medical impairments that significantly limits the claimant's ability to perform basic work activities. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(ii). Absent such impairment, the claimant may not claim disability. Id.

         Third, the ALJ must determine whether the claimant's impairment meets or medically equals the criteria of an impairment listed in 20 C.F.R. § 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(d), 404.1525, 404.1526. When the claimant meets these criteria, the ALJ will find that the claimant is disabled. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iii).

         If the claimant does not fulfill the requirements necessary to be declared disabled under the third step, the ALJ may still hold that the claimant is disabled after the next two steps of the analysis. The ALJ must first determine the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”), which refers to the claimant's ability to work despite her impairments. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(e). Then, in the fourth step, the ALJ evaluates whether the claimant has the RFC to perform past relevant work. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(iv). If the ALJ finds that the claimant is capable of performing past relevant work, then the claimant is deemed not disabled. Id. On the other hand, if the ALJ finds the claimant unable to perform past relevant work, then the analysis proceeds to the final step. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a)(4)(v).

         In the last portion of the test, the ALJ must decide whether the claimant is able to perform any other work commensurate with her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(g). Here, the burden of proof shifts from the claimant to the Commissioner to prove the existence, in significant numbers, of jobs in the national economy that the claimant ...

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